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SXSW 2023 Review: Netflix and A24 Team Up for Lee Sung Jin’s Beautifully Unhinged Road-Rage Rivalry ‘Beef’

SXSW 2023 Review: Netflix and A24 Team Up for Lee Sung Jin’s Beautifully Unhinged Road-Rage Rivalry ‘Beef’

We’ve all had those days when everything goes wrong. Nothing can change your bad mood because you’re clouded by anger, only able to see things in a negative light. All it takes is one more thing to set you off, whether it’s dropping your keys (again) or getting your shirt caught on something.

Creator-showrunner-executive producer Lee Sung Jin (Tuca & Bertie, Silicon Valley) took that relatable state of mind and turned it into a dark comedy that sees two miserable people from different walks of life dealing with similar frustrations and taking it out on one another. The 10-episode series is produced by Netflix and A24 and features directors like Jake Schreier (Kidding) and Hikari (Tokyo Vice).

The series opens with Danny Cho (Steven Yeun), a contractor down on his luck and currently waiting in line to return items at the store. Naturally, it’s a frustrating process but it won’t be the last anger-inducing moment of his day, and probably wasn’t the first. His seat belt does that thing when it locks up and he has to gently pull it instead of yanking it. (We’ve all been there.) Then he almost hits another vehicle as he tries to back out of a parking spot. He yells, the other driver flips him the bird on her way out, and the chase is on.

When talking about the character, Jin told Variety, “He’s got a chip on his shoulder. The way he views reality is very much blurred by his own insecurities and by his own projections.”

Our other driver is Amy Lau (Ali Wong), a stressed-out, overworked mother and wife running her own business. She lives a seemingly aspirational life where she’s financially comfortable, happily married to a handsome artist George (Joseph Lee), and gets to be her own boss. It’s all very Pinterest/Instagram-worthy, especially her wall-to-wall beige home filled with George’s weird sculptures. But to maintain this life, she has to smile through microaggressions from potential business partner Jordan Forster (Maria Bello) and casual insults from her mother-in-law Fumi (Patti Yasutake). 

This brief but life-changing altercation turns into a ridiculous feud that consumes Danny and Amy’s lives, both of whom have responsibilities and people to take care of. In Danny’s case, it’s his parents in Korea, his aimless younger brother/roommate Paul (Young Mazino), and the hypothetical family he plans to start in the near future. Amy is already a parent, and though her husband (and his family) are wealthy, she’s currently the sole breadwinner.

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Danny and Amy are complete opposites — a working-class man who’s struggling versus a wealthy business owner thriving in the suburbs (on the outside at least). And while each is under different external and internal pressures, the result of said pressures puts them in a similar headspace.

These two strangers are going through existential crises and are surrounded by people who try to force them to be positive. Danny’s brother Paul and their cousin Isaac (David Choe) are very laid back and don’t stress over anything. For Amy, it’s her husband who doesn’t want her to experience anger and tries to turn everything philosophical. Some of these tactics are admirable and healthy, but repressing emotions only means they’ll come out later and much stronger than before (like, say, during a road rage incident).  

This silly encounter becomes their outlet. They have to keep their cool with the people they’re actually dealing with or else suffer the consequences for expressing their feelings (getting fired, divorced, various ways of losing money, etc). They’re using the “beef” as therapy or perhaps more like a vice leading them to vandalism, catfishing, and blackmail. In other words, they’re doing the most. 

Beef has a strange tone comparable to Atlanta with hints of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Fleabag. It’s not necessarily surreal, but it highlights the many “I can’t believe this is happening” moments we go through in everyday life.

One thing that never failed to make me laugh in the series was the wonderfully bizarre late 1990s/early ’00s song choices. As soon as “The Reason” by Hoobastank started playing, I realized just how strange this series would be. In a separate episode, Danny plays an acoustic rendition of Incubus’ “Drive,” another example of just how unexpected and original the series is.

Beef is a fun, hilarious road rage revenge tale with stellar performances. The powerful character study, led by two of the best actors working today, digs deeper than one would expect, going beyond a petty rivalry into an introspective look at pent-up anger, sadness, and longing. It’s about dropping the fake smile and performative happiness and unleashing real emotions in the unhealthiest ways. 

Beef premiered at the 2023 South by Southwest Film Festival on March 18 and will release on Netflix on April 6.

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